Expectations and Targeting Audiences

Imagine I was selling bananas out of a shop. Don’t worry, this will make sense in a second.

The only thing I sell is bananas. Everyone loves it and while I don’t sell them by the truckload, I sell them to a comfortable degree to customers that love the product. Then one day I wake up and decide that I want a cut of the guy down the street that sells apples because he sells way more than what I do. I start to sell apples instead of bananas and my customers start to vanish. Some try it out of curiosity but the true banana fans are long gone. There’s nothing I can do and my sales drop. This my friends, is what I believe to be a “clever” metaphor for certain games.

I’ve recently been watching a show from journalist Jim Sterling called The Jimquisition. Each week he tackles issues he finds in the games industry where he analyses and critiques these faults. It’s a smart show that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to piss people off. Recent episode titled “Dark Souls and Dark Sales” and “Guns Blazing” focus on sales expectations and marketing to the right audience. The game that is the focus on both of these is Dark Souls. In the first video, Sterling talks about how with smaller, more realistic expectations, game companies and developers will be happier and better off when their game meets these expectations. The second video talks about how Namco Bandai PR said that after the success of the first Dark Souls, they’re going out “guns blazing” to try and get the Skyrim audience with Dark Souls 2. Which will basically mean that there will be a bigger budget, bigger marketing and bigger everything to get every dollar out of it. It’s insane.

Dark Souls was a huge success because it was small in everything but the actual content of the game. I know people that love the game for what it is and due to word of mouth, the game sold amazingly well. The developers and the publisher were happy with the results because it had realistic expectations. Compare this to companies like Square Enix and Capcom. As Sterling said in his videos, Resident Evil 6 sold 5 million copies which, apart from Call of Duty, is insanely high, and it was still considered a failure. I’d be happy if ANYTHING I ever did was sold or even viewed 5 million times. Tomb Raider, Hitman and Sleeping Dogs all sold under expectations according to Square Enix, with them hoping Tomb Raider would sell upwards of  6 million copies. It’s ludicrous.

But what about changing the entire tone of games or even how they play just to gain another game’s market share? The latest game that’s guilty of this (and the game that made me write this) is Dead Rising 3. Announced at last week’s E3 conference as an Xbox One exclusive, it’s a continuation of the zombie killing franchise, but this time it’s got a dark and grittier tone compared to the last ones. Asked why they’re going with this change, we were given the stock standard response of “widening the audience” and they even outright said the game was designed with the Call of Duty audience in mind. Sacrificing creative difference for a potential chance at getting more sales? That’s not right at all.

Why do publishers need to do this? Why do they need to potentially sacrifice what makes a game good, just for a quick buck? Why do they need to set these unrealistic and high expectations for a game that has never gotten close to those marks? Call of Duty manages to continue selling the amount they do because not only do they know the market they’re going for, but year on year they don’t change styles or gameplay to go after or widen the audience (even though the audience doesn’t really need widening).

Targeting and cultivating an audience already accustomed to your games is safe, but it creates realistic expectations. No More Heroes sold less than a million units when it released, but its publishers were happy with the results. Why? Because it knew it was only going to sell a certain amount and it reached that amount. The Dead Space series went from strength to strength because it focused on a genre, found its audience and stuck with it. They sold well and when it came to the third one, in another case of “widening the audience”, it sacrificed what it was originally for something different, losing both old and new fans. It didn’t even meet projected sales targets and again was considered a failure.

It annoys me to see companies moving into the mentality that “we all want to sell like CoD, so let’s be CoD”. It’s damaging to not only the gamers, as we’re getting diluted experiences, but to the companies that employ the people making these games. We see a game that’s highly anticipated, it’s released, sells a few million copies but not the 5 million they were hoping for and as a result, the developer is shut down or downsized to accommodate losses. It probably doesn’t help that the budgets for these games are higher than ever, but that’s another topic for another story.

Dark Souls 2 will sell well. Fans of both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are looking forward to the game. They enjoyed it for what it was and hopefully will enjoy 2 for what it will be. Trying to expand that audience is great, but to target an audience that more than likely won’t care about it? Stupid. There’s probably some crossover but it’s only small. I can only hope that Namco Bandai put away their guns, round up the fans that love the first games, keep their expectations realistic and make the best game they can. Fans will appreciate it, and everyone will be happy.

What do you think about drastic changes to games or the high sales expectations of games? Is it warranted? Or is it a quick cash grab?

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